A hand reaching out of a silver cooking pot

Well, the summer period is over (I can’t bring myself to call it an actual summer) and many people will have taken holidays. Perhaps some of you, like me, went abroad in search of better weather. Another benefit of foreign travel is the opportunity to encounter different cultures and interact with new people in their own, unique environment.

I’ve always found it particularly rewarding to make the effort to use the local language. That might just be a few simple words and phrases: “good morning”, “how are you”, “thank you”, “two beers please”; dragging up that O-level French; or in my case this summer, trying to remember the once quite reasonable but sadly now out of practice German from the years I spent there during my army days.

I generally find that the response I get from the local to whom I’m talking is much more friendly, welcoming and helpful. They’ll more often than not go out of their way to try and ensure the conversation is easier for us both. The opposite is the patronising, talk loud and slow in English approach so that Jonnie Foreigner, simple as he is, can understand what we want. This approach of course usually gets exactly the response it deserves.

The same holds true in the workplace for safety, health environment or any other specialist topic that can sometimes be seen as having a language of its own. Whenever you visit someone else’s territory in the workplace, to some extent, you would do well to adapt some of their ways, speak their language and try to display some empathy for their way of life. If we bluster in with the expectations of our territory, our engagement might not be as effective as we’d hoped.

This is not to say that we accept poor standards just because “that’s the way it’s always done here”, but the way in which you address the issues will determine how well you manage to influence the behaviours that you find.

Whilst recognising the danger of pushing the metaphor too far, this is where we try to introduce some kind of missionary role. Those brave souls who went storming into the jungle to convert the savages without respecting their existing way of life were the ones most likely to end up in the cooking pot on the fire!

Respecting a way of doing things is not the same as agreeing with them, but we do need to understand the history or the experiences that resulted in that behaviour. This is why, when we come across unsafe behaviour we have to ask ‘why?’

I’ve said in previous posts here that it’s important for us to recognise that we’re all salesmen trying to sell this product called safety. The best salesmen will understand the needs of his customer and speak to him in terms that he can understand.

What ‘language’ barriers have you come across in trying to sell the safety message? Salesman, linguist, missionary – what an exciting life we lead in the world of safety!